Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hagiography: Vittorio Zonca

I'm taking a step back. I have a lot on my to do list but tonight isn't the night for getting it done. Those other things on my list (my overdue taxes; returning those two library books; fixing the MEPIS install on my backup machine; completing those research reports on ERP consolidation, SCADA security, maturity models, and organizational forgetting; booking a hotel for Ottawa, and convincing my infant son that he would prefer to be on Eastern, not Mountain, time) will have to wait. Today, I explore the life of Vittorio Zonca.

The primary source material for my exploration is Alexander Keller's review of a 1985 edition of Zonca's work and its attendant introduction by Carlo Poni.

Very little is known about the life of Zonca, so his chronology is relatively brief:

  • 1568. Zonca is born in Padua where he lives the rest of his life.
  • 1599. Zonca draws a map to llustrate an agreement between the Republic of Venice (then owner of Padua) and the Duchy of Mantua over hydrological issues. Since Venice is removed from Padua, this map is evidence of Zonca's influence as an engineer and inllustrator. With the map is a letter in which he petitions the council of Padua to make him the town's official architect.
  • 1602. He dies. Padua's register of deaths records his profession as "sculptor," although no work remains.
  • 1607. The first edition of his Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii is printed. Since Zonca had been dead for five years, he could not have supervised the actual printing.
  • 1621. A second edition is published.
  • 1656. And a third.

Zonca is notable in that he depicted actual machines and not just fanciful creations in accordance with the tradition established by Besson and Ramelli. He appears to have been educated and refers to both the ancients and to one of his contemporaries: Besson (with whom he was dissatisfied). Poni notes that his awareness of power/velocity relationships with the lever indicates some knowledge of Guidobaldo del Monte's mechanics. He does not, however, cite either Guidobaldo or his fellow citizen Galileo.

Of his treatment of mechanics, Keller notes: "While older books had only captions to their pictures or at most a bald description of the sequence of operations, Zonca tried to show how his machines worked, usually by analyzing them into one or more of the 'simple machines' of Greco-Roman tradition, with these in turn reduced to the law of the lever."

A number of other advancements appear in Zonca's work. Notably, in preparing his plates Zonca actually consulted with technicians and artisans and provides some attribution for their creations. There is also very strong evidence that Zonca copied several of his designs from manuscripts left by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (perhaps the Ashburnham copy). Zonca also demonstrates an early awareness of friction noting that brass is one of the few materials that isn't rapidly consumed by steel. In contrast, Francesco's machines seem to float in space, unencumbered by bearings or pillows.

Zonca paid particular attention to textile machinery. He illustrates several machines for throwing silk. It is widely noted that a copy of Zonca's work was sitting on a shelf in the Bodleian while John Lombe was in Italy attempting to steal the secret of powered spinning.

His visual illustrations are typical for the genre. He used the same conventions as his predecessor Ramelli and Besson, including exploded views and inset drawings. Of note, however, is Zonca's inclusion of a scale to assist practical mechanics interested in recreating his machines.

Little is know of the life of Zonca. He lived in Padua's Torrazzo and appears to have never married or had children. He did, however, server as the godfather to the children of friends.

His work was certainly know outside of Italy. Hooke likely owned a copy. He describes an "itallian book of machines." Another notable author was Francoise Blondel, the first director of the Academie Royale d'Architecture.

Zonca's apparent lack of personal success is somewhat interesting. Given that Padua was a vassel-state of Venice, Zonca may have lacked a clear vector for pursuing patronage. It also possible that he lacked the will to move to a seat of authority such as Venice or to effectively act as a courtier.


Gerbino, Anthony (2002). The Library of Francois Blondel 1618-1686. Architecture History. 45: 289-324.
Keller, Alex (1988). Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii, 1607 [Review]. Technology and Culture. p 285-287.
Muendel, John (1995). Friction and lubrication in medieval Europe: The emergence of olive oil as a superior agent. Isis. 86.3: 373-393.